an you see those towers down there, on the other side of the city? That’s where he was living at the time. In one of those tangled-together buildings. I can’t tell you which one, but he was definitely high up in the towers there. I know because he told me about it a lot. Also, I live around there too. Different tower, but I know the general area.
Ah now—yes. I see you have an address. I’m guessing you have tried to go there. I’m so sorry about this—really I am. OK, well it’s worth a look I guess. Let me see? Yeah, that’s what I thought—you have a street number, but that’s just the building. I’m sorry. You don’t know which apartment? It’s not possible then. They cross over inside, those places. The textile workers or whoever they were who built that place hundreds of years ago, they built it like a circuit-board in there. All the apartments had these connections to other apartments, families with direct pathways to one another. Lanes of childcare access through the hearts of several buildings. Connections that mean nothing to us now. If I were you, I’d leave it well alone. If it helps put your mind at rest, I will describe the place.
In every apartment, I can tell you, there is a sort of living space that nobody uses. You don’t use it, there’s no light. You dump your stuff there if you have any stuff, and that’s it. Sometimes, if you’ve lost your keys or a jacket, it might be in that dark room, but generally you stay out of it. There’s a sort of feeling in that room that is not nice. A historical feeling, one with its connection broken. Does that make sense? Not much of it will. There is a bedroom, which is a place for being unconscious in and nothing else. And then in every apartment, without exception, there is a good, warming kitchen. He liked the kitchen.
‘Sometimes,’ he said to me once, ‘I find it hard to get out of the kitchen. Or, not the kitchen, but the dining area of the kitchen.’
This was about a month before he stopped turning up at work.
We were out for lunch when he told me about the dining area in his kitchen. It was my idea to go out for lunch in a bar—he wasn’t the type to instigate it—though he said yes quickly enough. There was something automatic about the way he agreed to things, you know? As though agreeing to come for lunch was something he desperately craved, and yet could not articulate or arrange for himself. Some people are like that—but they get by. He came here alone, that tells me something—at some point this was someone who decided to come here. He had enough propulsion to pack a bag, and to set off. He had it in him to choose.
Sorry. Sorry for that pause—I think about him a lot, but it’s hard to imagine him choosing things, taking control. I try to picture his face as he makes a decision but, I can’t. I’m sorry. This is not why you came.
Anyway, I wanted a long lunch. I needed to get out of the office, if you want the truth. The place was dying around us. I was badly in need of a distraction from the work I was failing to do. Our friend always seemed to be up to date with his projects. He could always make time for extra meetings and so on so I dragged him out with me. He was unaffected by the obvious calamity of our company’s situation. He turned up, smiled at the right time, did his work, let it all wash over him. He was a lifeboat in a sea of dead boats—that’s how I saw him then any way. Does that make sense?
I’ll continue. We were day drinking, as I have said. The company we worked for was not progressing well. We were circling the drain, and even though there was financing, there was nothing going on in the sales team. It was a depressing situation, but it didn’t affect him. Not at all. I think he planned to just work there, do his level best, until the place went under. Then I imagine he would have expected to find somewhere else he could quietly sit and carefully, efficiently, re-evaluate the technology stack of a new company that was wasting money and couldn’t understand why. There is a lot of work in this town. A lot of work and not much else. Well, towers, obviously. Plenty of towers.
Anyway, that lunchtime we went to the bar across the square from the office. I didn’t tell him this, but I planned to drink the whole afternoon. I needed company.
The place was called Gerrards. It was one of those bars that crop up within the ground floor of large office buildings. You enter through a heavy smoked glass door into an open space, walled with more smoked glass. The bar staff are interchangeable with the reception staff in the business entrance on the other side of the building. The toilets for the bar are actually the guest toilets for the meeting rooms on the first floor and basement.
We sat on a sofa eating chips. I tried to move things along, but he just wanted bottles of beer, slow drinking, to his credit—he didn’t mind that I was doubling his pace. He didn’t mind.
He was silent. No choice really, trying to look interested while I held forth about how I was going to get sacked or the company was going to go under and I didn’t know which was coming first. After a while I became sick of hearing myself talk, so I asked him about himself, how he was finding things. I was on the verge of begging him to talk to me about anything, anything at all, just to keep me from whining. And that was how he started talking about that room of his. The dining area of the kitchen.
‘I can’t stop thinking about it,’ he said. ‘I think about being in that room all the time. Like, I never really leave. Or I do, but somehow I don’t.’
I found this a very odd thing to say, of course, but I told him, ‘That’s normal. That’s totally normal. You’re in a new town. You need something to anchor you. It’s totally normal to like a room.’
‘Yes. I suppose that’s true,’ he said, but he didn’t seem satisfied. Then he said, ‘I keep a little verbena plant on a shelf, just below the window. There’s a table with two chairs, one of which I think of as the main chair, it faces straight out of the window, across the table. That’s my chair.’
‘So, if I ever come over, I’ll sit on the other chair then will I?’
He didn’t really hear me. He went on describing the room. He moved his hands to where the various features of this room were in proportion to where we were sitting. He closed his eyes on certain words, nodding as if to confirm to himself, yes this is window. Yes, here is chair. I found myself relaxing into the idea of this room.
‘The curtains are a kind of rust red,’ he told me. ‘Linen they are, thin enough to blow in the breeze, and to let the moon glow through—where the weave is thicker, the material fractures the light ever so gently. The walls are the colour of butter, or yellowed ivory, and made of this bulky, soft mortar.’ He stroked his cheek as he talked about the walls, and I realised he was imagining it against his skin. ‘I can’t describe what it’s made of, the wall plastering, I don’t have the words, but it is like art. It’s like a sculpture in plaster, everything is smooth and organic like a softened cave.’
At this point I was just nodding along. It’s odd isn’t it? But I was no longer embarrassed. I should have been because who talks like this? But you have to understand, I could see that room—there is the window, the sky beyond it, the tiles on the roofs outside like the rippling tides of a sea. There is the cold plaster, butter yellow. I can close my eyes and see it all now, just as I describe it to you.
‘It’s so nice,’ I told him. Even through the booze, I was deadly serious, this room now sounded like heaven to me.
‘The walls have these recesses which form incidental shelves. I have a lamp in one of these. In the evenings, I put the lamp on and it glows in the little recess—it looks like a sentry there, chubby in the recess. The night air comes in and mixes the fragrance of the city with the soft citrus of the verbena plant.’
I had my eyes closed by now. I felt myself there completely as he told me about the floor tiles, how cool they were. He told me again, but in a new way about how the light hit the roofs that lay below the window and all around. The tiles like a sea.
We came to a natural break in the description of the room, and then it was just us again, sitting together in this weird numbness. I slapped my legs, got him another beer.
After that, we spoke regularly, but we didn’t go out together again. Whenever we found ourselves alone together, I made sure the emphasis of the chat was firmly back on the shit state of things in the company—which is to say, I did all the talking. He would drop something in from time to time. He got into the habit of telling me about the book he was reading, which in fact he had been struggling with since he’d found it in his apartment when he moved here.
It was about a couple of fictional mountaineers, this book. They were climbing a deadly, unscalable mountain. I think the idea was that somehow this mountain was bigger than Everest, and it had come in the night, or something. A sudden, weird mountain. Very far-fetched, very pointless. Any way, this vast thing that dwarfed the mighty Everest was being climbed by two mountaineers, but get this—the whole book wasn’t even about how this fictional mountain came to be there. It was instead about the toxic relationship between these two climbers. This intensely damaged relationship the climbers had with each other was the focus of the whole story. At one point—I think this is right—several hundred bats the size of men emerged from a cave and beset them, tearing at their flesh, but the scene was forgotten after barely half a page, the bats having been easy to kill with crampons and ice hacks. After that, he told me, for a hundred more pages they were just teasing each other, and claiming petty victories of spite—insulting each other’s table manners, being offensive about the smell they had, or one of them claiming to have swindled money from the other’s parents. Always bringing each other down emotionally, working tirelessly to harm the confidence of the other mountaineer, so progress was painfully slow. For the sake of winning these increasingly petty quarrels, they risked losing limbs, even death. A load of shit.
He told me it was agony to read it, but he was determined to get to the end. ‘Like being a mountaineer yourself,’ I joked.
‘Yes!’ He agreed. ‘Exactly, I think that might be the point of the book.’
Anyway, I was fine hearing about it, but then he told me how he read it mostly at home, in a large recess in the wall of the dining area of his kitchen. As soon as he told me about sitting there, with this dreary book, I could see it, the little recess just big enough for him to fit in there, the smooth plaster on the walls, the leaves of the verbena rustling softly. I could see the light, soft as cream, blending from the moon to the little lamp in its own recess, to the gentle burn of the gas hob. I felt as though I was there with him. I felt that embarrassment again, followed by a wave of sudden weariness.
I had to slap myself in the legs again to snap out of it. Then he let me rage on about the state of the company, the woolliness of the CEO, how I had lost all confidence in the place, how things were falling apart around us and we didn’t have any way of stopping it—I was boring myself to be honest. We parted ways at the end of that particular day and from then on I stayed away from him—not wanting to bring him down, that’s what I told myself, but also I began to find it harder and harder to be around him. Whenever he spoke, he would mention his room. And I felt hypnotised, found myself enveloped there with him, embarrassed and fatigued.
I few weeks later, I found him in a state of quite serious distress—he was late to the office, something that almost never happened. I assumed he was just sick or feeling tired. I had been feeling bad for neglecting him. Taking some of those assholes from the QA team out for drinks instead of inviting him. He hadn’t said anything, but he kept meeting my eye, and I would smile and find excuses to be somewhere else. Awful of me, I’m sorry.
I found him in the breakout room. He was sitting at the white table staring straight ahead into space. He looked a wreck, I’m sorry to say. His hair was out of shape. He had a smell coming off him. I didn’t realise he’d noticed I was even there until he began speaking.
‘I felt myself fading away,’ he said. ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me.’
‘What do you mean fading away? Like passing out?’
‘No. Not passing out. I was in a queue and, after a while I realised I had been waiting so long, I couldn’t remember what the queue was for. I was just standing there behind this tall man, somehow I couldn’t manoeuvre myself out of the line to see what was at the other end. The tall man kept moving too. Nobody would move out of my way.’
‘Jeez, we’ve all been there,’ I said. ‘I fade out, as you call it, all the time in queues. You’re probably just tired. Head home maybe?’
‘No it wasn’t like that. I literally didn’t know the time of day. It could have been a lunch place or a coffee truck. The queue went round the corner of the building—I had no idea what was going on. And I then I could smell verbena. I could hear the curtains flapping in the breeze.’
‘I could feel the tiles beneath me, I could feel the sun gradually moving across the table. I could see the little lamp like a man in the recess. I saw the sun move, and the leaves of the verbena grew. I was there for hours. I cleaned the table, I touched the walls . . . ’
‘I think we need to get outside somewhere,’ I told him.
I took him under the arm and hurried him out of the break-out room towards the exit, and into a lift.
I couldn’t explain to him at the time, but as he was speaking, I myself had lost focus. I had found myself in his room—the dining area of his kitchen—or not actually in the room, but I felt the sense of the room. My friend’s sad eyes had turned away from me as he spoke, and for an instant, I couldn’t see him at all. The room was there instead.
Outside in the square, the city noise and the cool air cleared my head slightly.
‘Are you alright?’ I asked. ‘You feeling better out here?’
‘Better,’ he said.
He did not look better at all. He looked panicked. I wanted to leave him there. His window and the verbena plant flickered as he stood there. I wanted to run away and never speak to him again, but I could not. It wasn’t his fault, whatever was going on.
I put my arm through his, and we walked through the square and off towards the South City Road. After some time, as we dodged around the mid-morning crowd, he spoke again.
‘You’re the only person I speak to in this town. I don’t speak to a single other living soul.’ We were essentially lost in the streets when he said this. I was trying to get a grip, but I dared not look at him in case he was a curtain.
‘That’s no good!’ I said. ‘No friends? We’ll have to fix that! You always look so happy in the office. Or at least, contented. I assumed you had people!’ I was lying, it was clear that he had no people. I felt dreadful.
‘You gave me a bit of a scare,’ I said after he seemed to have calmed down.
‘I’m better now,’ he said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I want to go home.’
I walked him home and we didn’t say anything else. I didn’t look at him, not even to say goodbye as he slipped through his doorway in the white base of the towers.
The next day he was mugged outside on the street. I don’t know exactly what happened—he told me about it, but he couldn’t give me the full details. Someone rushed him from behind, shoved him to the ground, took his bag, took his wallet. Left his phone. He didn’t say anything else about it—not the exact location, no description of the mugger, nothing.
I know that he had several important documents taken from him. Precious objects, he called them. Documents and pictures.
‘They didn’t see me at all,’ he said. He was talking about being at the police station, where they don’t stand on politeness the way I might. He tried to report the crime, but they didn’t see him. They saw a window. Do you understand? He was talking but they saw roof tiles, they saw a pleasant sky.
He was saying pictures of my daughter. He was saying my life has been stolen, but they saw plaster and they smelled verbena.
Eventually he had to leave the police station. He tried making a phone call but leaves closed instead. The curtains blew in the wind.
I spoke to him that night. He contacted me through the work messaging system, which I stupidly have on my phone. I agreed to meet up.
He said he wanted to have dinner so we went to a Chinese place near the towers. Good food. Cheap.
He was alright eating. We talked about dumb stuff. Some work gossip. He said he felt bad for Ollie, a young guy who had recently joined. He worked late every day, but nobody would promote him because there was no money.
‘Why doesn’t he get it?’ he said. ‘Silly idiot!’
It was the first serious work conversation I had ever had with him.
‘Don’t you want to talk about the police?’ I asked. ‘You were mugged. What happened?’
But he didn’t want to talk about it. Instead, we talked about the book shop in town, what they had in the window there. We talked about the fountains in the park.
For a while the cold moon shone through and cast the wooden table in a broad paleness. The verbena shivered in the cold. I had to go to the bathroom and wash my face.
It seemed that when he was eating he held up OK.
‘I still don’t know anything about you really,’ I said to him. ‘What do you like doing?’
He started talking, but instead of him, there was the window. There was the table and the best chair facing the window. There was the lamp. Over to my right was the hob. He was saying something but there were clouds processing over the distant chimneys, the creak of a beetle investigating the soil of the plant pot. I watched for a long time as the moon in the dining area of his kitchen completely replaced his face.
When he finally spoke again, he said, ‘I like swimming. I love to swim but I haven’t seen anywhere in this town that suits me.’
Determined not to see the room again, I asked him if he’d tried the sorrel centre.
‘I’ve tried. But, too many people. Too much of a crowd’
‘What about over in South Point?’
‘I tried to get there, but the place was closed. It looked good though. Quiet.’
We agreed to go down to south point for a swim soon. I felt weird agreeing to this. He sensed my hesitation, I think, because he said, ‘Look I’ll be there at Six AM tomorrow. If you can’t make it, don’t worry. But I’ll be there. I need to at least have the appointment—it will motivate me,’ he said.
‘Really? Six AM tomorrow?’
‘Six AM! Oh yeah!’
He tried to make it sound like a joke, but I could hear a snag in his voice, like he was actually quite nervous about what would happen to him in a swimming pool. Would someone drown as they swam out towards the blue sky above the rooftops?
‘Six AM!’ I said. ‘I’ll be there.’
‘It’ll be great!’ He was actually smiling.
‘I can’t promise to match your sunny mood!’
We stayed for drinks at the Chinese place, which was a mistake because I lost concentration and for a long time the curtains billowed, the red rust curtains, the verbena plant on the shelf under the window hushed as cool air and the night fragrance of the city came in, clouds pushed shadows across the butter yellow walls, the lamp squatted like a little man in the silver light, guarding his recess in the wall. I felt the sudden sensation that I was falling, plummeting into ice, because in the room was a figure, a hand wiping dust from the table—a terrible horrible sadness came over me.
‘Six AM!’ my friend said again. The sadness lifted instantly. His face, his cheery face saying a stupid time of the morning, was back.
I never made it to the swimming pool. I haven’t seen him since that night in the Chinese restaurant, but I’m telling you, he’s in that room. That’s what I’m saying, it makes no difference, I have no idea where exactly his room is. It’s a maze in there, you could try all week and never find it. Even if you have the address, the address is no good, I told you that. The whole place crosses over and repeats, like a ritual. And in every apartment, in every space, a room so tranquil, so utterly harmonious that if you’re not careful it will replace you.
But you already know that because right now I see the sun going down through a window, a chair turning grey in silhouette. I am talking to you but the curtain is flapping in the breeze, the plaster is butter yellow.
You are listening but there is now just a window. You are listening but there is only a table set in front of the window, a bat flickers past changing direction, rippling the air. The roof tiles shrink in the cold.
A window a table a recess with a lamp.
A window a table.
A moon looking in.
The figure is there. The figure, starved and tall grumbles by the table, shuffling, wrapped tightly in material. The figure moves slowly, casting hideous shadows, devouring the light into its mouth, dusting the table, cooking beans. The figure there all day, running long obsessive hands over the verbena plant—hours go by, days go by the figure, the window the ocean of the tiles on the roofs that scale the lost and most forlorn night.
Ben Pester writes fiction and lives in London. His collection of stories Am I in the Right Place? was published in May 2021 by Boiler House Press in the UK. His work has appeared in Granta, Five Dials, Hotel and more.